Crafting as Data, but Process over Product

Steve Singer

To Cite this Article

Singer, S. (2022). Crafting as Data, but Process over Product. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.


There is robust scholarship that involves lifewriting, including autoethnographic and narrative analysis methodologies. Narrative analysis is the process of analyzing and piecing together various texts to make meaning and retell the story of people’s experiences (Reissman, 2008). In a similar way, an autoethnographer applies a systematic way to document their own experiences with a particular set of phenomena and then analyzes them to create meaning (Ellis, 2004). These methodologies do not limit data collection to writing, but that mode of information transfer seems to be the most natural form, since the majority of the scholarly products from data is text-based. My own work with disabled people has shown me that writing does not always create the richest data (Singer, In press; 2019; 2018; 2017). Even for myself, a Deaf and disabled scholar, whose career prioritizes writing, I find that writing feels foreign and contrived. There must be other authentic methods through which I can capture rich data.

This methodological essay uses self-study as a vehicle to explore data collection in visual forms. As author and subject, I attempted to be the data and observe the data. I understood the impossibility of separating myself from either role and instead capitalized on the insider knowledge that I bring to the table. It was necessarily messy and subjective and yet, still resulted in accessing truth in ways I would have otherwise been unable to excavate. I sought to document my experiences as a Deaf person with multiple disabilities in a society focused on able-bodiedness through crafting, in this case woodwork. The meanings that emerged from this different approach to work deviated a great deal from my other autoethnographic scholarship, revealing previously veiled truths to my existence and suggest that using varied forms of collecting data can enhance qualitative inquiry, be it autoethnographic or ethnographic,  for all subject populations.

As a methods essay, I dedicate the background to use of non-text forms of data in research and the analysis to reflection on the findings of my process and craft-as-method. I designate sections of text that clearly indicate me-as-subject using italics to aid readers in recognizing the data the research process generated. The visual representations of the crafting should be understood as subject-created data. I conclude by describing the implications of this work for narrative-based data generation for all populations of people.

Background

The notion of using of non-verbal forms of data or as supplements to text data is not a new one. Interviewing and writing as vehicles for data collection in qualitative research with children have been critiqued as often stressful or ineffective (Coppello, 2005; Docherty, & Sandelowski, 1999).). Therefore, researchers working with this population have used photographs (Heaton et al., 2005; Noyes, 2000), drawing of pictures (Goodwin et al., 2004), and traditional observation techniques (Bogdan & Biklen, 2006; Malhall, 2003). Others have asked children to draw from popular media (Willett, 2001), perform dance (Cone, 2003) or participate in theater (Tate, 2005). Similarly, writing and interviewing disabled people is not always the most effective way to collect data (Corby et al., 2015; Mactavish, 2000), so researchers often use similar forms as above for data collection (see Onwuegbuzie & Byers, 2014). Denham and Onwuegbuzie (2013) conducted a systematic literature review and found that a vast majority of qualitative empirical studies provide little to no description of nonverbal communication, which highlights the academy’s myopic approach to data collection and the value it assigns to written and spoken words.

In the approaches to data collection above, the researchers were attuned to the limitations of text or spoken data collection and used innovative ways to access participants’ experiences. However, these approaches seemed to communicate an idea of “how do I solve this problem of collecting data?” There is no mention of how these forms of data collection could be inherently better than traditional forms of data collection or how the data produced might be different than an interview, even if an interview were efficacious. This thinking seems evident, because scholarship with typical adult speakers and writers rarely employs alternative forms of data collection, despite a fair body of literature that investigates visual forms of data collection (see Banks, 2007; Halcomb, 2016; Reaveyy, 2012)

Developing a Purposefully Visual and Creative Method

If instead of centering verbal communication as the default mode of data collection, the design of research intentionally shifts the focus from written texts to visual forms, it may be possible to excavate new contours of experiences. It can be difficult for an autoethnographer to bifurcate their research subject and researcher roles and consequently one affects the other. For this reason, I began this work with only asking myself a big question, “What are my emotional experiences as a disabled person?” By taking this approach, I anticipated that the creative process would unveil a more focused question and that this broad question would be less guided by my training as a Disability Studies scholar. For this reason, I resisted, as much as was possible, planning, thinking, and analyzing during the creative component of this work. I posted a sign above my workbench that stated “Feel, don’t think” as a reminder.

This almost backward study design also applied to the selection of mode of data collection. In most research, the research question dictates the method (Bogdan and Biklen, 2006). In this case, I asked myself “If not text, what mode of expression feels most natural to me?” I dabble in a wide range of visual media, but when thinking about this work, wood quickly came to mind and I followed the inspiration. At the onset, I anticipated, I would create 4-10 pieces, change my metaphorical hat to that of researcher, and then deeply analyze the products as the data. As I selected materials, started planning, shaping, sanding, and finishing the wood, I quickly came to realize that the products were but a small fraction of the data. I felt, reflected, and responded to what I was creating in significant ways throughout the process. Conditioned as I am, I naturally defaulted to documenting these phenomena through journaling. It was not until later that it occurred to me that I deviated from my objective of not relying on text-based data. I discuss this below in the implications.

At the completion of six products, I chose four to discuss in this essay. I limited the number, so I could provide deeper analysis and the four included showed themselves to me as being the most significant. To be clear, I was intentional about permitting an immeasurable and abstract “knowing” to select which pieces to include, which while not scientific, speaks of the importance of prioritizing human understanding and participant episteme in research that seeks to access these same notions. There remained plenty of opportunity to conduct systematic analysis. Finally, I feel it is important to note that I crafted most of the pieces during the Covid-19 pandemic, while in the mountains of New Hampshire. I wrote this manuscript sitting at a favorite spot next to a stream, nestled among the living organisms that made my craft possible, trees (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Context for data collection and writing

The Products

In this section, I describe and reflect upon the products, both the completed object and the process of creating it. I divide these into three sections: a) materials, b) finishes, and c) form. The selected pieces include a box, cutting board, planter, and a table.

Figure 2: Box titled: “What For”

Figure 3: Cutting board titled: “In and Out of Line(s)”

Figure 4: Planter titled: “Suspect Balance”

Figure 5: Table titled: “As-Is”

Materials

What For and Suspect Balance were made primarily of poplar. Poplar is known as a false hardwood, that is more sustainable and less expensive than true hardwoods lumbers like maple or walnut. It is easily worked with, handling sanding, screws, and finishes well, but many woodworkers dismiss it as furniture quality wood, because of its softness and coloration.

 Perhaps that is why I chose it? I am reminded of how I often feel like a false human, barely holding on to my status as a researcher, professor, husband, and father, constantly on the border between valuable and scrap material. I worry that when I crack and show my blemishes or discoloration, which I do often, that my family and colleagues won’t view me as suitable stock, but I use this body and this wood, because it is what’s available to me and within my financial means.

I realize that with limitless financial, time, and mental resources, that I could likely be a more acceptable, more productive, and happier Self, but that’s neither a feasible reality nor does it take into account that people don’t always become Themselves based on notions of “optimal.” Instead, I have arrived to this Self in ways I don’t quite comprehend, but it’s me and change is neither easy nor always requisite. I both cherish and despise this me.

In and Out of Line(s) is made from maple, oak, and walnut, while As-Is is made from maple and bubinga, an exotic hardwood from Africa. It is always a pleasure to work with fine woods, though I don’t often, because of their expense and my feelings of guilt for using woods that the harvesting of destroys our forests and take advantage of indigenous peoples. These woods naturally contrast in color. The dark and light offset one another to create an aesthetic appeal, but I feel my choice of this contrast runs deeper.

They represent me. My views on my life lean toward dichotomy. Afterall, my experience has shaped me in this way. Countless times, I have existed in states of true feast or famine when I was destitute. During my years negotiating mental illness, I have bounced between being functionless and near death to an overachiever, capitalizing on every opportunity that passes by me. In my social and scholarly lives, I have received countless messages of my aptitude and how much I do not belong among people or in the academy.

I am purposefully vague about the circumstances in which these occurred, because they suffuse my life and I don’t wish to attribute them to disability (Deaf, learning/language disabilities, and various mental illness diagnoses) or my personality. These features of Self are one and the same, each molding the contours of the other. Regardless, I find this life of dichotomy to be uniquely mine, appealing, and an epistemic reality that is difficult to change. Might As-Is make more sense to a general audience if it were uniformly bubinga, perhaps, but not in my vision.

Finishes

All four pieces were meticulously sculpted and sanded. Unlike many of my amateur craftings, I did not encounter any problem solving that resulted in new features. There were no accidents. This was unlike my existence.

I feel as though very little of what I do is purposeful. I react to what I encounter and generally do a poor job of considering appearances. This is not to suggest I don’t care or that I am flexible. I do not react well to change and ruminate about everything. My wife commonly and with good intent tells me to “stop self-flagellating.” By most societal metrics, I have found success, but it is all an accident that has resulted in desirable features. I feel as though these accidents are waiting to be discovered and flagged. I feel my appearance in the academy has been sanded smooth, made to align with the refined spaces of tradition, but those surfaces are only a veneer of a much more mottled underlayer. My disabled body/mind doesn’t really belong here—under the existing definitions of what I have been led to understand as acceptable–and through my acts of appearance, I feel I slight my disabled brethren who do not have or do not accept 2000 grit sandpaper.

Of the four pieces, only What For has a finish that changed the color. It has a pecan stain. The notion of stain felt perfectly suited as I wiped it on the poplar. I felt a sense of deception in my attempt to make this piece a bit more visually appealing. The wood had a green tinge to it, which I wished to cover. It looks much better now, but the effects of staining it are eternal and those who will view it will never comprehend or likely even consider what’s beneath, nevertheless the implications of covering it up.

Form

The form is likely the most noticeable feature of these pieces and thus naturally guided the titling of each. What For is a box. The box is delicate, thin, and only glued together. I can’t imagine much purpose for it beyond holding pens and pencils. While the box is square, the walls are cut at a fifteen-degree angle. The internal divider abuts the walls in an uncomfortable joint, neither aligned, nor sufficiently distanced from the top edge to appear intentional.

I am bombarded by messages that I need to be a tough-skinned self-advocate for my needs as a disabled person and justify my existence in various spaces by reviewing disability related legal mandates and convincing others that my presence doesn’t inherently ruin the event, activity, or task. I feel like this box, delicate despite my appearance, obtuse, and that I have limited utility.

This segues into In and Out of Line(s).

Throughout my years, I have associated waiting in line and squandered time with disability, whether it was working with social service agencies to secure basic sustenance or to gain access to coursework and other interactions in a vastly hearing world. I was conditioned to be docile, because resisting those in power meant the loss of more time and possibly not accessing life-sustaining medications. Simultaneously, no matter how hard I have tried, my pattern of existence did not and could not align with individuals and institutions in symmetrical, sensical ways. I am at odds both internally and externally with the world, resulting in uncomfortable and ununiform lines.

The streak of dark walnut that crosses the lines is but a fraction of the cutting board surface and yet, it dominates the composition. This represents my resistance to remaining in line. Just as it defines the composition, it seems to define my life, despite existing as a small part of my whole self.

All that I have discussed above leaves me feeling as though I am teetering on the edge of a precipice, waiting to topple over the edge should one miniscule component of that balance shift. It’s true. If I miss one doctor’s appointment or miscalculate how to approach a conflict connected to my disabilities, I risk a great deal, because it’s easy for able-bodied folk to attribute an error to my disabilities, which fuels a narrative about the incompetence of disabled people, rather than affording me the same latitude others may have to simply say “oops.”

These ideas are represented in Suspect Balance, where there is no firm foundation or structurally sound angles. In order for the planter to remain upright, there is a counterweight made of Kumihimo cord, a form of ancient Japanese weaving, I wove and a sack of lead weights. If a passerby were to bump into this piece, it would surely fall over. As long as nothing disrupts the balance, it’s fine, but it’s only a matter of time until something does. Finally, there is As-Is, which came into creation in a surprising way. Unlike the other pieces, this one is not warped or dissonant. As I began crafting the table, I couldn’t bring myself to cut into the beautiful piece of bubinga, so I developed the form in response to the materials and before realizing it, I had a fine piece of furniture that had a function, a table for my office.

Amid all the contention, it is easy for me to forget that I am fine just as I am. There is beauty in my experience that need not be altered, reframed, or compared to others. I can allow this piece, me, the table, to form into whatever makes sense to me.

There is a crucial understanding here that often becomes lost and I don’t want to permit the often dolorous, able-bodied world to take that away from me.

Discussion

The data represented above is atypical of the ethnographic data I generally collect. Typically, I search for rich description of events from which I can extrapolate meaning and apply to existing theories. At first, this “telling” compared to “showing” felt antithetical to my training as a qualitative researcher, but as I reflect on it, I have come to realize that this exploration was never about describing sociological phenomena, though it ultimately does. The data shows me accessing my emotions connected to sociological phenomena and how I have created myself as a reflection of those feelings. The crafting was a personal process, that while connected to the world in which I live, was unequivocally about me. I was surprised. I have served as a participant in numerous studies about disability and I can recall most of what I have said in those interviews or at least the nature of my responses. This is because over the course of my life, I have developed scripts about my experiences. Rosen et al. (2003) described that a script is a knowledge structure that people use to both make sense of their understanding of a phenomenon and communicate that understanding to others in an efficient way. It is not that my scripts are inauthentic or do not represent my reality, but that I know there is a subtext that is much more difficult to access. There are portions of my scripts that I either missed or that my psyche chose not to prioritize. The surprise was that I did not know what my narrative was until I stood back and looked at the collection of art and organized my journals. The process pushed through my current self-understanding to a new stratum of self-meaning.

This new stratum of self-meaning is my internalization of ableism. Rosenwasser (2000) describes that internalized oppression is a reaction to societal oppression that is reflected inward until the oppressed see themselves as the cause of that oppression and consequently find themselves full of self-loathing and a disgust of others in their population. I uncovered how deeply rooted in me the acts of violence and oppression enacted against me are, so much so that they are part of me, which I continue to inflict upon myself. Burtow (2003) explains that this internalization of ableism is the consequence of existing in a society where there is little escape from derogatory messages about the liabilities of being disabled. This trauma wears on disabled people, until it becomes part of them. My reflection about poplar wood shows that I understand and believe that I am only partially human and a fraud waiting to be exposed. It’s not just the messages I receive, but how I understand myself.  This understanding doesn’t stem from an objective self-evaluation, but by being compelled to strive toward able-bodiedness in a way that highlights how I am not (McRuer, 2010).

Through my discussion of fine materials, I show that I fundamentally feel that I don’t deserve to feel adequate or valued. My ruminations about finishes make it clear that in addition to messages I have received about how I do not belong among professionals in my field, that, I too, believe this. Disabled people may make attempts to emulate the able-bodied so that they can fit in and at times, are successful, but when these attempts are unsuccessful, they feel like a personal failure (Campbell, 2018) rather than the failure of a societal system to create equity. Being stained so that I might pass as able-bodied is as much my adopted moniker as it is a stigmatization and is both success and failure as a disabled person. The words I choose in my discussion of the form of the pieces indicates that I am not truly delicate or in-balance, but that I really see those distinctions as objectives. Instead, I am already broken and toppled. It is common practice for disabled people to masquerade as “okay,” because the admitting of not being “okay” fuels the notion that their entire existence is not (Siebers, 2004). I know that I am the sack of lead weights, rather than a representation of the more appealing idea of equilibrium. On an intellectual level, I am not certain that all this is true, and therefore these ideas might otherwise hide in the shadows of my scripts as a strong, resistant, disabled academic, but as I pause, look at these pieces of art that I have created, and read the words I have typed, I want to destroy it all, because it all strikes a bit too close to my heartwood. The trauma remains, inflicted by all of us.

Conclusion

Art as data is not simply an alternative format for when spoken language or writing is ill-suited for research participants. Nor should this kind of data be manipulated to equate to text-based data. This data is unique. As I have suggested in this self-study, the creative process accesses different recesses in our minds that may or may not be accustomed to analysis. For this reason, researchers may be able to view subliminal complexities of human experience that are obscured by text, which in these circumstances may be considered a secondary source. I apply this phrasing because writing is a construct or reflection of ourselves. There is something more corporeal about the raw power of guiding a person to feel in the ways that come natural to them rather than wordsmith. These feelings communicate to me a sense of primary source data. This is not to suggest text is inauthentic. As I stated earlier, I defaulted to text documentation of my feelings through journaling and ultimately, all of this data was interpreted to text form in this manuscript. The point is that journaling came natural to me. No one dictated that I should use it as a form of documentation or how I should do it. Instead, it developed organically as part of my own personal process. Emancipatory research is an approach to research in disability studies that prioritizes three tenets of research designs: Empowerment, benefit, and participation (Petersen, 2011). While these ideas are intended to rebalance power in research relationships with disabled people, I suggest that they apply to all research initiatives, because they render more authentic data. When participants have a sense of control about the design or how they participate and receive tangible benefit from their inclusion in research, the quality of what they produce is less constrained and more legitimate.

In addition to considering visual forms of data as ways to elicit different layers of experience and understanding, it is important to consider where and when participants create data. Offices, conference rooms, classrooms, and other common sites to collect data carry the weight of any traumas experienced in those types of locations, how people’s behavior has been indoctrinated in those spaces, and may generally not be locations where people feel the most secure, creative, or authentic. All of these may affect the validity of data in significant ways. Earlier in this paper, I discussed that much of the crafting and all of the writing of this paper took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Societal and personal contexts should be considered or at least reported in manuscripts to better understand what might have affected participant response. In my case, I was looking for an escape from pandemic-laden media and work stress. For me, the context catalyzed my creative process, but perhaps also tinged my responses to what I created, because those influences were troubling. Just as crucial, my ability to work alone, in an adequate woodshop, and write sitting next to a mountain stream in the middle of New Hampshire stripped away layers of constraint. My introverted and hands-on personality permitted me a much more unbridled ability to allow myself to be vulnerable in these conditions. This discovery suggests to me that researchers need to survey their participants’ personalities, resist the ease of using institutional spaces, and shape their research designs to create enlivening research settings that take into account human ecology. Human ecology is the study of the complex relationships between humans and their environments (Bubolz & Sontag, 2009). While perhaps associated strongly with anthropological scholarship and sometimes considered in the interpretation of qualitative research data broadly, the impact of ecology on the process of generating data itself seems scantly considered. When I look at figure 1, I see this manuscript and woodcraft I created. Much less of me would be apparent in this work in other less congenial settings.

Returning to why I mindlessly defaulted to keeping written journals, it comes as no surprise. I was raised in a family and school system that valued writing and work in a profession that also focuses on written text. My objective in this essay is not to delimit the value of written forms of data, but to centralize choices of data generation that make sense for individual participants, not giving credence to any one form.

In this research, I chose to conduct a self-study. As the researcher and subject, it was difficult to disregard the knowledge that I would later analyze my process and products as a scholar and write about it. We can assume this knowledge affected my approach to crafting. We can also assume that applying a similar research design to ethnographic work would not necessarily have the same results. This provides for a significant moment of reflection. Participants, whether they are Self or not, are wholly aware that they are participating in the representation of episteme. Their contributions are rarely without context. Acknowledging and reflecting upon participants’ roles as researchers should be given due attention, regardless of who analyzes the data and authors a manuscript.

The implications of adding art as data extend beyond accessing different forms of data and increasing validity. Research populations, particularly those that are small, often experience research fatigue. By expanding the ways people participate in research and making that participation more appealing will attract a larger subject pool and decrease the reliance on a smaller number of typically interested individuals. For example, I focused on memoir generation, which included photography, painting, and writing in recent research I conducted (Singer, 2018). After a short recruitment, I accepted less than 5% of the overwhelming positive response to my call for participants. The participants reported that one of the compelling reasons they joined the research was that they were creating something for themselves rather than for me and consequently about half them completed a full memoir, which yielded more rich data than I could begin to consider disseminating.

As we continue to generate ever-larger bodies of scholarship, it is important to expand the ways in which we create meaning as a way to generate ever-larger ways of understanding human experience. Further, we should consider it our charge to honor our research participants by creating innovative and evocative research designs, because as people, they do not exist to satisfy our needs as researchers. Instead, researchers should consider that they exist to satisfy the needs of participants and vis-à-vis the needs of society. Afterall, that is the purpose of research.


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